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Schoonmaker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

October 5, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.



         Before the Court is the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Bernard M. Jones recommending reversal and remand of the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Doc. 29. Defendant objected, arguing that substantial evidence in the record supports the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) “not disabled” finding under Title II of the Social Security Act. Doc. 30. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court reviews the Report and Recommendation de novo in light of Defendant's objection and ADOPTS it in its entirety. The decision of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) is REVERSED and remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         The ALJ issued a decision on March 24th, 2015, that Plaintiff is not disabled and therefore not entitled to DIB. Doc. 14-2. The SSA outlines a five-step disability evaluation. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a); see Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005). The ALJ first found that Plaintiff has not engaged in “substantial gainful activity since January 23, 2012. Doc. 14-2, at 18.[1] The second and third steps entailed ALJ analysis of SSA-defined “severe impairments.” Id. at 18-20. The ALJ found severe multiple sclerosis (“MS”), degenerative disc disease of lumbar spine, disc bulge of thoracic and cervical spine, and obesity. Id. Notably, the ALJ relied on Plaintiff's Function Report (Administrative Record (“AR”) 237), a third party Function Report (AR 221), and Dr. Brooks' testimony (AR 41) to determine that Plaintiff's anxiety and depression did not cause more than a “minimal limitation” insufficient to constitute a “severe mental impairment.”

         Fourth, the ALJ found Plaintiff possessed the residual function capacity (“RFC”) to “perform a wide range of light and full range of sedentary work.” Doc. 14-2, at 20-23. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's claims and testimony, Dr. Valluck's medical report (AR 345), Dr. Brooks' testimony (AR 41), Dr. Zubair's report (AR 614, 784), the SSM St. Anthony Hospital Reports (AR 662, 823), Dr. Salrin's Physical Medical Source statement (AR 707), the Affordable Quality Care report (AR 466), and the Allied Physicians Group report (AR 495). Lastly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled because her RFC does not prevent her from continuing past work as a “tax clerk, front office clerk, and collections representative.” Doc. 14-2, at 23. The Commissioner thereafter adopted the ALJ's finding following Plaintiff's unsuccessful appeal.

         On review, Judge Jones rejected Plaintiff's claim of ALJ error regarding manipulative limitations from the RFC, but found reversible error for two related, but distinct, reasons: First, the ALJ failed to discuss Dr. Cruse's opinion regarding Plaintiff's anxiety and depression. Second, the ALJ failed to assess these “nonsevere” mental impairments in making her RFC determination. Doc. 14-2, at 19.

         Dr. Cruse performed Plaintiff's mental status exam on July 19th, 2011. AR 429. His relevant conclusions-which the parties agree the ALJ failed to consider-follow:

Mental / emotional disorders include: anxiety and depression. . . . Occupational functioning has been severely impaired for one year and five months. Interpersonal functioning has been moderately impaired. Personal functioning, as reflected in activities of daily living, is limited to a moderately degree. . . . Treatment has produced moderate or partial return to functioning. Observations and responses in today's interview are believed to be of good reliability and validity. . . . Prognosis is judged to be fair. There appears to be a moderate probability that treatment will result in substantial improvement over the next twelve months. . . . Treatment with counseling and psychotropic medication are recommended.

AR 431-32.

         Defendant objects to Judge Jones's Report and Recommendation.[2] Doc. 30. She argues that the ALJ's omission was harmless error because Dr. Cruse examined Plaintiff before the relevant disability period and Dr. Cruse's opinion comported with the remaining record. Plaintiff responds that Defendant materially distorts Dr. Cruse's prognosis and that the timing of Dr. Cruse's report is not determinative.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. Andrade v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 985 F.2d 1045, 1047 (10th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Fowler v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 1451, 1453 (10th Cir. 1989), and “requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). While the Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases . . . [the Court] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005).

         III. Discussion

         The ALJ committed two errors that are not harmless. First, she failed to consider Dr. Cruse's medical report at Step 2 of her decision. Second, she ...

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